The Adventist "pioneer" theological heritage

The Adventist "pioneer" theological heritage: Implications for faith, preaching and teaching

Applying Adventist history and heritage to present Church directions and discussions

Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

One of the most critical moments in the ministry of Jesus is recorded in John 6 when many of His disciples withdrew and "walked with Him no more" (verse 66, NKJV). At this juncture, Jesus turns to the remaining twelve and asks: "Do you also want to go away?" (verse 67). The response of Peter, framed as a rhetorical question, speaks eloquently and plaintively for the whole human race—"Lord, to whom shall we go?" (verse 68).

The question of the meaning and destiny of human existence can be found only in the truth of Christ and His gospel. What other answer can compete with it? Furthermore, the portrayal of Christ and His gospel, in the setting of the distinctive "theological" convictions of "pioneer" Adventism (1845-1915) forms a uniquely comprehensive set of perspectives and beliefs. And these convictions have a powerful potential for shaping the Seventh-day Adventist Christian worldview, philosophy of life, mission, and ethical perspective.

"Present truth"

Adventist historian and writer George Knight has suggested that the two major theological accomplishments of the "pioneer" period were (1) to forge out what was "Adventist" and (2) what was "Christian" about the Seventh-day Adventist belief system.1

The traditional Adventist term "present truth" is one that from our earliest existence as a people has influenced our conception of what encompasses those doctrines that convey the theological consensus of early pioneer Seventh-day Adventism (1845-1863) and helped the "pioneers" of mid-nineteenth century Adventism clarify what was more especially the "Adventist" component in their theology when it was projected against the backdrop of what is Christian.

This consensus included the following points: (1) The second coming of Christ as literal, visible, imminent, and pre-millennial; (2) the sanctuary ministry of Christ, which encompasses His work as High Priest in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary and the "investigative judgment"; (3) the eternal authority of the law of God and the seventh-day Sabbath; (4) the nonimmortality of the soul (conditionalism) and the unconscious state of the dead; (5) the annihilationist view of hell (the wicked destroyed); (6) the millennium as a period in which the redeemed rule in heaven with Christ while Satan presides over a desolated earth; (7) spiritual gifts, including the gift of prophecy, are all still active options for the Spirit to bestow upon the church; (8) holistic health (physical, mental, social, and spiritual) is greatly emphasized as an integral part of the process of mental, spiritual, and ethical development (i.e., sanctification); and (9) a profound sense that, as the "remnant church," Seventh-day Adventism has a special task in fulfilling the prophetic vision of the three angels of Revelation 14.

These distinctive, or "present truth," doctrines did not stand out as isolated pearls on a string but were given collective theological force through the shaping power of four key framing perspectives:

1. A hearty commitment to the Protestant sola scriptura principle. Thus there is the strong conviction regarding the primacy of scriptural authority in all theological and ethical considerations.

2. Under the rubric of the primacy of Scripture, the apocalyptic portions of the biblical canon (especially Daniel, Jesus' Olivet discourse,2 and the Revelation) were given a privileged place in shaping Adventist theology.

3. The "great controversy" motif. This metanarrative traces the origin of sin, God's reaction to this celestial "fall," and how sin spilled over into this world with the earthly fall of Adam and Eve. This narrative then traces all the redemptive initiatives God has instituted for the salvation of humanity and the restoration of harmony in the universe.

4. Sanctuary imagery (drawn from the books of Daniel, Revelation, Jesus' Olivet discourse, and the New Testament book of Hebrews) and the "investigative judgment," which helped develop a cosmic "theodicy"3 that forms the background for the great controversy between Christ and Satan and its finale.

The great controversy and sanctuary perspectives became self conscious keys that help unite the pillars or landmarks of "present truth" with the "eternal verities"4 of the larger Christian doctrinal heritage.

The embracing of the "eternal verities" reflected a growing awareness of the importance of key doctrines bequeathed to Western Christianity through the decisions and creeds of the first four ecumenical councils and the later heritage of the Protestant Reformers from 1517 to 1850.

The most important doctrines retrieved by Adventism from this Heritage of Eastern and Eatin Christian orthodoxy were:

1. The Trinity, with a special accent on the full deity and humanity of Christ

2. The essence of Augustine of Hippo's emphasis on human depravity

3. The Eastern Orthodox optimism of transforming grace

4. The Eatin emphasis on legal metaphors of salvation. Furthermore, the "eternal verities" were augmented with the following from Adventism's Protestant heritage (1517-1850):

1. The great "solas" of Euther and Calvin (fide-faith, scriptura-scripture, gratia-grace, and the priesthood of all believers)

2. The Arminian emphasis on free will

3. Protestantism's emphasis on total human depravity, on legal metaphors of salvation, and on the optimism of grace

4. English and American revivalism, with its missionary burdens

5. American "restorationism" with its radical biblicist, optimistic individualism, and "sanctified" rationalism

Christ at the center

The collective effect of the above was to raise consciousness about the centrality of the person of Christ: His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement as Advocating Intercessor in the heavenly sanctuary.

While "pioneer" Seventh-day Adventists were truth-driven seekers for biblically based doctrinal clarity, they gradually came to understand that the exaltation of not only the teachings but also the person and work of Christ would serve as a catalyst for a deeper experience in the things of God. And this deeper, Christocentric perspective would give birth to a revival that would prove to be more loving and winsome (and more effective) in its service and witness to the world.

In this context, Ellen and James White developed an awareness of the spiritual aridity among the "truth" burdened saints of the Adventist "remnant." This realization led to the stir ring conviction that Christ, the Cross, and the love of God needed to enter not only into Adventism's doctrinal development but into its collective heart, soul, and spiritual growth.

These developments ultimately led Ellen White to her most profoundly stirring portrayals of the love of God. Furthermore, such portrayals were accompanied by earnest appeals to God's people to embrace this "love divine" as manifest in the saving work of Christ and the redemptive moving of the Holy Spirit. These portrayals included the following:

Doctrinally, godly love was poignantly described as an unfolding of divine justice and mercy, which resides in the very core of God's nature. Such love was expressed in other more theologically practical and tensional balancing acts—law and grace, justification and sanctification, lingering mercy and the inevitability of judgment.

This crucial and climactic exposition of the love of God (especially in the setting of Christ's atoning death on Calvary), the recovery of the doctrine of the Trinity in the setting of the "great controversy" theme, and Christ's ministry in the heavenly sanctuary all come together in The Desire of Ages, especially on pages 761-763.

It is in the context of Ellen White's ministry from 1888-1901 that Seventh-day Adventism has really embraced the task of integrating its "Adventist," or "present truth" heritage with its larger "Orthodox"5 and Protestant heritage. The fruit of this integrating effort was manifested in an effort to make the proclamation of the three angels' messages more Christ- and Cross-centered. And this Christo- and cruci-centric effort resulted in the uplifting of the great theme of all themes—the Trinitarian love of God for alienated, depraved, and unworthy sinners.

Ellen White was in the vanguard of every significant theological, revival, and missiological renewal of Seventhday Adventism. Without her contributions, Seventh-day Adventists could have easily evolved into a semi-Christian cult. Her strong emphasis on finding truth through the Word was crucial to our doctrinal formation.

Further considerations

The Biblicism behind these van guard initiatives includes not merely bringing together all of the key texts on any given theological subject or theme but also carefully interpreting them in the setting of the overarching great controversy theme. Yet this narrative is not primarily about Lucifer and his rebellion, the Fall, and the ultimate restoration of peace and justice in the universe. Instead, the centerpiece that drives this whole narrative is the nature or character of God's love—especially as it is manifested in the life, teachings, death, resurrection, and heavenly intercession of Jesus.

In the context of the "love story" of the person and work of Jesus, the key theological contributions and perspectives of Ellen White come into play. And this powerful portrayal of the unfolding of God's love will profoundly illuminate each doctrine with an alluring and fruitful significance.

For Ellen White, God's love was comprehensively expressed at the Cross and included two key components: a wonderfully balanced unfolding of (1) justice and (2) mercy.

Most certainly, divine love's primary "calling card" is an enduring mercy. But it is quite easy for mercy to degenerate into soupy indulgence. Therefore, love must be ultimately conditioned by justice. On the other hand, justice can easily degenerate into cold vengeance or calculated impartiality. But at the Cross, and in its subsequent redemptive developments, the love of God has been steadily revealed as a wonderful interbalance of justice and mercy, resulting in the full solution to the sin problem. And, out of this redeeming love, we are confronted with the genius of the Trinitarian contributions to the Adventist theological pilgrimage.

Dry as the hills

The early "pioneers" had become stout defenders of the law (both moral and physical, i.e., "health reform") and bold proclaimers of judgment. The Sabbath was to be observed, not so much experienced. The millennium was more about the devil getting his due than about God giving clear views of redemptive strategies and decisions.

Ellen White said that we had preached "the law until we [had become] as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain."6

This mere justice emphasis had led to preaching that consisted mostly of "theoretical discourses" typically framed in a debating style. Most tragic of all, this was done to the exclusion of any Christ-centered emphasis on "practical godliness."7' 8

It was not, of course, that Mrs.White wanted to do away with the doctrinal and theoretical aspects of truth, or to neglect the justice of God; there was simply, instead, a lack of Christocentric grace that should suffuse doctrinal essentials with the merciful side of "love divine."

Sensing this need, at the General Conference of 1883 Ellen White sounded a strong message of grace. This was the period that climaxed with the great revival of "righteousness by faith" and a clear accenting of the primacy of justification by grace, through faith alone. The atoning death of Christ as a merciful sacrifice for the sins of the world became the keynote of her writing and speaking ministry. Especially in the aftermath of the Minneapolis General Conference of 1888, she exalted the crucified One as the great channel of the love of God for a doomed world.

Furthermore, not only did this period feature the uplifted Christ and His merciful, justifying grace, but it also witnessed a somewhat protracted, steady advance in the recovery of key doctrines such as the full deity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Trinitarian yeast was being instilled into the Adventism.

Interestingly enough, when Adventism began to proclaim its "present truth" in the light of the Trinitarian love flowing from Calvary and Christ's heavenly ministry, a new element was brought into the work. Those doctrines, which had been primarily viewed as conveying justice, were now seen as also fused with mercy. Not surprisingly, a new note of hopefulness was featured in the proclamation of the blessed hope.


The sum of the matter is this:

As inheritors of this rich legacy, Adventists must accentuate each doctrine, each practice, each standard, and every ethical demand in the light of the arresting narrative of Triune love as unfolded at the cross of Christ and in salvation by faith alone in the merits and grace of Christ.

If any doctrine, practice, or moral demand cannot be informed by or more clearly inform the Trinitarian love of God, it should be reconsidered. If the love revealed at the Cross and appropriated through salvation by faith alone is not in our preaching, teaching, or practice, such efforts are not worthy of our time and energies.

1 George Knight, A Search for Identity (Hagerstown, Md : Review and Herald Pub. Assoc., 2000), 10.

2 Reported by the synoptic writers m Matthew 24 and 25, Luke 17 and 21, and Mark 13.

3 The expression "theodicy" is the technical term that has reference to any attempt to give some satisfactory theological explanation for the problem of evil

4 The expression "eternal verities" was coined for Seventh-day Adventists by Leroy Edwin Froom to describe Adventism's discriminating doctrinal appropriations from the larger or broader Christian tradition, or the "great tradition" of twenty centuries of Christian theology.

5 We need to alert the reader that we are using the term "Orthodox" to refer to both the Latin, or Western Roman Catholic tradition and the Eastern, or Greek Catholic tradition ot churches. The latter are usually referred to as the "Orthodox" family of churches headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey).

6 White, Review and Herald articles, March 11, 1890.

7 This expression refers to the steps to reconciliation with God and a life of effective witness and service.

8 White, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown, Md • Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 158, 159.



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Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

February 2005

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